This is a chapter of King Arthur and His Knights by Blanche Winder.
Ygierne, as you know, was shut up in a castle, where Uther could never visit her, though he had loved her from a distance for a long time. But Merlin kept his promise and, by his magic, made Uther able to take on the figure and voice of the lord of the castle so that the king could come and go without anyone finding out.
Merlin knew the future, he knew that Uther was destined to marry the Lady Ygierne in the end, so he did not scruple to help matters forward a little. When the lord of the castle was killed in battle, Uther Pendragon came to Ygierne in his own form. He told her that he loved her and would always protect her. So she married him and became his queen.
After the marriage, King Uther Pendragon and his sweet and lovely Lady Ygierne lived very happily in a castle called Tintagel by the Cornish Sea. You may see the ruins of it now, but you can never perhaps imagine how fine and strong it was in those days, hundreds of years ago. Folks were brave and cheerful then, and, though they certainly had terrible battles with their neighbors, they were gay and courageous between times. The knights loved and fought for the fair ladies, and bravest, most loving, and fairest of all, were King Uther Pendragon and Ygierne, the queen. Well, they were very happy together at Tintagel, and by and by their little son was born. Ygierne knew now that Uther had promised to give the baby instantly into Merlin’s charge.
She was very sad about this, but she would not ask the king to break his word. Besides, she and Uther had often talked of the great future which Merlin had foretold for their child. So the king and queen kissed the baby prince, and the queen herself wrapped him up in a beautiful cloak of cloth of gold and gave him into the charge of two ladies and two knights. Then Uther told the two ladies and the two knights to carry the tiny prince to a certain little half-hidden door in the castle wall, to open this door softly and silently, and to give the child into the arms of somebody who would be waiting.
Singing little soft lullabies, the two ladies stepped carefully down the corridor, followed by the two knights. They reached the winding stairs and went down, down, down to the little half-hidden door. One lady carried the baby on a golden cushion, asleep in its golden cloak.
They opened the door, and the light of the candles which the two knights carried shone out into the dark still night. From among the shadows came a dim tall figure and held out its hands for the baby, and the ladies and the knights gave the tiny boy into the stranger’s arms. Then they went back through the door and, as they climbed the winding staircase, they heard the distant trotting of a horse. On the horse rode Merlin with the baby.
Over hill and dale he went until he reached a quiet small castle in a valley. Here lived a good and sober knight called Sir Hector, who knew well why Merlin had come. Long ago, the magician and King Uther had sent for Sir Hector and asked him if he would receive a little child into his house — a little child who was to become very great and famous, but who must be brought up simply as a noble knight’s son. He had consented and had been given lands and riches in return. So, when Merlin rode up in the dark night, Sir Hector and his wife met the magician gladly and took the baby straight to their own nursery. Then Merlin had the little prince christened “Arthur”, and Sir Hector brought him up in his own good, quiet, and happy home.
But Merlin was always at hand, watching over the boy. His father, King Uther, was content to leave little Arthur in the great wizard’s charge. However, when he was dying, he sent for Merlin and asked for news of the child. How happy he was when he heard that Prince Arthur was growing up into a fine, strong boy. How much better it was that he should, later, be brought up just as a good knight, instead of as a king’s favored son! Then Uther gave back the round table to Merlin and told him how it might be kept safe until Arthur came into his kingdom. Accordingly, Merlin had it carried far away to Cameliard, where it was placed in the care of an old friend of Uther’s, another great king, whose name was Leodogran, who, in his turn, put it into the charge of two hundred and fifty knights, all of them brave, noble, and good. What happened to it, afterward, you will hear in another story.
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So Uther died, but nobody knew that the little lad in Sir Hector’s house was the dead king’s son and heir. The barons of the country began to quarrel among themselves. Each of them wanted the power to rule over the rest. So that at last Merlin went to the archbishop, who mourned over these things and told him to call all the barons to London for Christmas, that they might go to service in the church and forget their quarrels, if only for the gentle hours of Christmas Day. The barons dared not disobey the archbishop, so to London and to church they duly went. The service over, out streamed the congregation into the churchyard. And there they saw something that had assuredly not been visible when they went in.
Right in the east of the churchyard, lit by the pale Christmas sun, stood a stone white as marble. In the center of it was a square of steel, and from the steel rose the glittering handle of a strong sharp sword. In letters of gold about the sword were written strange and thrilling words — words which said that whoever could draw the sword out of the stone was king of Britain, Uther Pendragon’s only rightful heir.
The barons crowded around the stone, wide-eyed and amazed. Each called out that he, if given a chance, was certainly the one and only chieftain who could draw the sword from the stone. Smiling oddly, Merlin, who stood near, bade them all try. Jostling each other in their hurry, they sprang, one by one, to the side of the stone, seized the handle of the sword, and pulled and tugged with all their might. But their efforts were not a bit of good. The sword did not even tremble in its square of steel.
At last, the barons, tired and angry, went away from the churchyard and began to amuse themselves by holding a tournament in some meadows not very far away. After all, it was Christmas time — the season for junketings, jaunts, and knightly games.
And riding to the tournament as a matter of course came Sir Hector, his son Sir Kay, and the fair and noble boy Arthur, whom Sir Hector loved as much as his own child. As they passed the churchyard, they saw the sword, shining in the stone that was like beautiful white marble, and they spoke to each other of the strangeness of the sight. Then they trotted on, and, just as they were about to ride into the meadow, Sir Kay exclaimed, in dismay, that he could take no share in the tournament, for he had left his sword at home!
“Turn your horse quickly, my son,” said Sir Hector to young Arthur. “Gallop home and fetch your brother’s sword. You are too young for the knightly games, but he must on no account be left out of them.”
Home Arthur went, full speed, to fetch his “brother’s” sword. But, when he reached the house, everything was lonely and locked up. Sir Hector’s lady had gone to the tournament herself and had taken all the servants with her! For a minute Arthur hesitated. Then he was struck by the happiest thought.
“I will go to the churchyard,” said he, “and take the sword that is sticking out of the big white stone!”
So he mounted his horse again and off to the churchyard he rode. Dismounting, he hastened to the great stone. There, not even pausing to read the words which were written in the golden letters, he took the sword by the handle and pulled. Lo and behold! the sword came easily and lightly from the steel in the middle of the marble.
Sword in hand, Arthur once more sprang into the saddle and galloped away to the tournament. Over the meadowgrass he trotted and straight into the hands of Sir Kay he gave the sword. Then, like the light-hearted modest boy he was, he fell back among the other younglings, watching to see his elder brother’s triumph.
But Sir Kay was staring at the sword. He turned it this way and that, then rode off to where his father watched.
“Sir,” he said to Sir Hector, “this sword which young Arthur has brought me is the very sword that no baron could draw from the stone in the east of the churchyard! You have heard what was written around it in letters of gold?”
“I have heard,” said Sir Hector, grave and startled, for he, too, had been told the story of the sword set so firmly in the beautiful white stone! He, too, recognized it now.
“If this is so, sir,” cried Sir Kay, with a glowing face, “then I — I — must be king of Britain, Uther Pendragon’s heir!”
But Sir Hector, deep in thought, had turned his horse’s head. “Call your brother Arthur,” he said. “And both of you, follow me.”
In silence, they rode to the churchyard. When they all dismounted near the stone, Sir Hector looked at Arthur, who stood quietly by.
“Put the sword back again!” said he. And Arthur did so. Sir Hector turned, then, to Sir Kay. “Draw it out,” he commanded. But Sir Kay could no more do this than any of the barons who had tried so hard. Then Sir Hector himself tried, and also failed. Tenderly he laid his hand on Arthur’s shoulder.
“It is your turn, now. Show me — show your brother — the truth!”
So Arthur, still quite simply and naturally, drew the sword for the second time and would have given it into Sir Hector’s hand. But Sir Hector, instead of taking the sword, bent on one knee, and did Arthur homage, as all good knights do homage to their liege lord and king.
“My son,” said he, “—and that I cannot help calling you, though you are not my son— the writing in the golden letters was set down on the marble slab for you! Hail! Arthur, son of Uther Pendragon, and king of Britain!”